Ode to Odonata

The trilling of frogs echoes from a wooded pond. Trees, still bare though slowly speckled green, stand silent as I ride past. Then, out of the corner of my eye, a prehistoric creature zooms in from the left, pauses as if to determine if I’m friend or foe, then zig-zags out of sight. “Did you see it?” I call back to the passenger in my trailer. Another buzz, a flash of brilliant green with silvery wings stretched out, and this one pauses as it passes too, so close that we see its giant eyes bulging. “Yes!” he cries out from behind, “I definitely saw that one!”

During the Permian geologic period, 300-250 million years ago, all of the Earth’s land was a single supercontinent known as Pangaea. In the drier climate, ferns gave way to the first modern trees  – conifers, ginkos and cycads. It was the time before dinosaurs, when amphibians still ruled the land and giant cockroach-like insects scurried underfoot. It was also the time that odonata first appeared on the Earth.

Dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched and have fatter bodies than damselflies.
Dragonflies rest with their wings outstretched and have fatter bodies than damselflies.

Millions of years later, after two major global extinctions, odonata still live on. They are the damselflies, with slender bodies shimmering iridescent and wings folded politely overhead, as well as the dragonflies, whose bodies seem almost too large for their gossamer wings to carry. Today, there are 5,500 to 6,500 dragonfly and damselfly species in the world, including 140 that live in Minnesota.

Dragonfly nymph - like many insects dragonflies live in the water until they undergo metamorphosis
Dragonfly nymph – like many insects dragonflies live in the water until they undergo metamorphosis

Most people consider dragonflies and damselflies to be terrestrial flying insects, but in fact, they often spend more than half of their lives in the water. During the summer and early fall, adult odonatans lay eggs in wetlands, lakes and streams. Once they hatch, the larva continue to live in the water for anywhere from two months to five years. During this time, they are virtually unrecognizable to all but the most astute citizen scientist. Their bodies, drab, brown and wingless, blend in with the underwater mud and muck, and they usually stick to places where reeds and other aquatic plants provide cover. After emerging from their larval stage, they finally leave the water as the brightly colored flying insects we so easily recognize. Alas, their adult life is a mere four to six months long.

Though beautiful, both dragonflies and damselflies are actually fearsome predators. They dine on mosquitoes, midges, butterflies and moths. Their larva, no less deadly, eat other aquatic insects and sometimes even tadpoles and small fish.   They can flash through the air, flying as fast as 29 inches in a second, and then pause like a helicopter, hovering in space while looking for their prey.

In the past week, common green darner dragonflies have just resumed flight near ponds, lakes and slow moving streams in Washington County. Their oversized bodies are easy to spot, especially while trees are still bare. The widow skimmer, a large dragonfly with black and white wings also emerges in early April, as does the plains clubtail, a rather drab, tan-colored dragonfly that lives in and along large streams and rivers like the St. Croix and Mississippi. Other species will continue to live in the water until May, June or even July.

One day, very early in the morning, a dragonfly larva will pause and cling to a stem poking out of the water in a still, brown pond. Its skin will harden and crack. From within will emerge a glistening creature of flight. The young dragonfly will rest an hour or so until its wings are dry. Then, like a messenger from a land that time forgot, it’ll fly through the woods and across a quiet trail, pause to stare at a woman on a bike pulling a yellow trailer behind her, and then zig-zag off into the world.